William Powell Frith
1 of 25 portraits of William Powell Frith
- Extended catalogue entry
© National Portrait Gallery, London
William Powell Frith
by William Powell Frith
Oil on canvas, 1838
23 7/8 in. x 19 7/8 in. (605 mm x 505 mm)
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Inscriptionback to top
On back of frame, inscr. in pencil: ‘Miss Frith / Miss Frith for Portrait..’;
label, partially visible: ‘826 / Clean / Re-line Restore / needed for exhibition / January 74’.
Detached original label (removed to Primary Collection Associated Items plan chest, NPG Archive) illegible, possibly reading: ‘i give ............/ daughter ?? Frith / WPFrith / ?6’ and ‘?? 1908’.
This portraitback to top
‘The student need never be at loss for a model, so long as he possesses a looking-glass,’ wrote Frith. ‘In my youth … I spent hour after hour staring into a mirror.’  Although he also claimed that his own likeness had ‘defied me over and over again,’ the number of self-portraits in his oeuvre, and especially those included in subject pictures, testifies to this lifelong practice.
When a friend drew his attention around 1883 to this self-portrait for sale in a ‘shabby gallery behind a shop’, he had no recollection of parting with it by sale or gift, nor could he discover its subsequent history. But in his autobiography he confidently stated that it had been painted in 1838, when he was a student aged 19.  This was the year of his exhibition debut, when his address was 6 Charlotte Street. Later that year he spent several months painting portraits of gentlemen farmers in Lincolnshire.
This work is equally confidently painted, in a suave and economical manner. It does not appear to have been re-worked. The donors, two of Frith’s daughters, regarded it as ‘very good and far superior’ to NPG 1738.
Three other works may be compared with NPG 2139 (see ‘All known portraits’). The first is the half-length attributed to his fellow-student Douglas Cowper, which was begun at the end of 1836 and is a less searching portrait; in the present work Frith has given himself a touch of Romantic intensity. Second is Frith’s youthful self-portrait in historical costume, as if posing for one of his own subjects (see ‘All known portraits, Self-portraits, c.1838’). Third is the watercolour by William White Warren, which closely replicates NPG 2139.
Dr Jan Marsh
Footnotesback to top
 Frith 1887–8, vol.2, pp.312–13.
 Frith 1887–8, vol.2, p.312.
 Frith 1887–8, vol.2, p.314.
 See the engraving reproduced in Frith 1887–8, vol.1, frontispiece, which is entitled ‘Painted by Himself in 1838’.
 SBA (253, ‘Sketch of a Boy reading’) and BI (189, ‘A Page with a Letter’).
 Letter from Louise Frith to NPG, 17 Nov. 1926, NPG RP 2139
Physical descriptionback to top
Quarter-length to right, half-profile, pink complexion, light brown hair, deepset eyes, wearing brown coat, black cravat and white shirt, against dark reddish-brown background.
Conservationback to top
Cleaned, re-lined and re-varnished 1974.
Framed before acquisition.
Provenanceback to top
Early history unknown; bought from shop by the artist c.1883 and in family possession until 1927 when presented by his daughters.
Exhibitionsback to top
A Festival of Britain Exhibition of Paintings by William Powell Frith, R.A. 1819–1909, Harrogate Corporation Art Gallery, 1951 (1, as ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’).
Reproductionsback to top
Frith 1887–8, vol.1, frontispiece (as wood-engr. by P. Naumann).
Strand, vol.3, 1892, p.598.
Bills & Knight 2006, half-title (where entitled ‘Self-Portrait with a model, 1838’).
View all known portraits for William Powell Frith